OVERCOMING AN ADDICTION 
written by Dr Silas Wesley 


    All addictions are essentially the same, in terms of the basic processes involved. This paper is for anyone who is trying, on their own, to give up -- or cut down -- from an excessive emotional dependency on some particular activity (like eating, or sex), or drugs (like valium, alcohol, or heroin), or a compulsive habit (like smoking, or jogging), or people (yes, an individual can become addicted to another person or group, too).

    Notice that the phrase is, "an excessive emotional dependency". An addiction is NOT a disease, in spite of the efforts of the Addiction Treatment Industry to continue adding one "disease" after another to those requiring expert professional treatment, hospitalization, or therapeutic support groups like AA, GA, NA, etc. In addition to alcoholism, pre-menstrual syndrome, compulsive gambling, shop-lifting (kleptomania), drug addiction, and sexual addiction, compulsive shopping has also recently been added to the list of those diseases requiring specialized, often expensive treatment.

    In the case of problem-drinking, it is also NOT true that things are bound to get progressively worse, and the person end up in prison, the nut house, or dead -- unless they seek immediate professional help, or join AA.

    The Addiction Treatment Industry does its best to keep secret the fact that the vast majority of people who have a problem handling some substance, or activity, at some particular period in their life, simply grow out of it, on their own, without outside help. As a result of feed-back from the realities of life, they learn to moderate their indulgence. For example, late-teen age males typically overindulge in alcohol. But by the age of 30, as a result of jobs, marriage, and changes in social group identity, the majority have greatly moderated their drinking to the point where it is no longer a problem, and without professional help -- in spite of the gloomy, dire predictions of inevitable downhill deterioration voiced by those with an economic interest in the Addiction Treatment Industry, as well as many devoted, ardent advocates of AA. It's true that some people may need the emotional support of a group approach, but for many others this needs only be a temporary stage in the movement towards freedom from an addiction.

    Notice that the possibility of cutting-down was stated as an alternative to the one of totally giving up indulging in a so-called addictive substance or activity -- contrary to the dogma of AA. A sexual addict does not have to give up sex altogether to overcome an excessive emotional dependence on this outlet. Nor does a food fanatic (either over- eating, or its opposites, bulimia and anorexia) have to stay away from food altogether in order to overcome an emotional problem connected with eating.

    Studies have shown that the social community a person belongs to is of crucialimportance in helping him, or her to overcome an addiction. The concept of community includes such things as a job, marriage, family, and the law (reflecting the wider community's approval or disapproval of certain kinds of conduct). In one study, for example, a stiff fine, and a short period in jail was found to be far more effective in cutting down on the number of repeat accidents in a group of drunk drivers, than either hospital, outpatient psychotherapy, or compulsory attendance at AA meetings (incidentally, this last method showed the poorest results of all!).

    But, regardless of the helpfulness provided by the surrounding social climate, it's ultimately the individual himself, or herself who must do the work of stopping, or cutting down on, the use of the harmful substance or activity. An addiction is not in the substance (or activity) itself. It's true that some chemicals may have a more intense physiological impact than others, but no substance, in and of itself, is addictive. People do the addicting.

    And it's not genes that cause addiction, either. There's no clear-cut evidence for this theory either, although it can provide an excellent excuse, or rationalization for a person to continue to indulge. Or it can have the effect of creating a feeling of hopelessness, with an actual increase in the tendency to indulge in the questionable substance, or activity. But even if and when, in the long run, such a gene theory did prove to have a small amount of truth to it, it would still be up to the person to DO something about whatever behavior the gene was inclined to incite. It's the individual who would still have to do the choosing.

    The cause for an addiction is not a substance, activity, another person (an "enabler"), or a gene. The real cause is the mind -- with the accompanying emotions, or feelings aroused by certain specific thought patterns, and mental images.

    A social group, family, or well-meaning friend can only have an effect on an addicted person to the extent to which that person's own inner patterns of thinking and feeling change. And the less the amount of support and help offered by a person's community (for learning new habits of thinking, feeling, and reacting), the more important it is for an individual to understand, on his or her own, exactly how the mind operates in developing an addiction. And what they can do about it. No matter how marvelous and supportive a community the person lives in, it can never do the inner work for him or her that's necessary for overcoming an emotional dependency on a harmful substance or activity.

    So, what exactly are the inner processes of thinking and feeling that go to make up an addiction? In its simplest terms, an addiction can be thought of as made up of two equal and opposite polar mental tendencies.

    (1) A substance, person, or activity is mentally pictured, in imagination, as being able to provide feelings of great pleasure, relief, and ecstasy, or a sense of power and omnipotence, or a glorious mystical experience of Oneness and Unity. This is the aspect of addiction that is most often stressed by writers, and also is frequently uppermost in the addict's mind when he gives in to its siren spell.

    (2) The other side of the coin, though, and even more important, consists of thoughts and feelings having to do with how unpleasant, painful, or unbearable it is, or would be, to have to do without the substance, activity, or person. Ideas and feelings like these are usually far more crucial than positive allurements, in tipping the scales of behavior towards over-indulgence.

    Specific Thoughts that Lead to, or Fortify an Addiction

    There are a great number of ideas the mind can dish up to strengthen a tendency to indulge in an addictive substance or activity. When examined closely every single one of them turns out to be a gross exaggeration, an extreme over-generalization, or a downright lie. "My mind lie to me?", you ask. You're darned right! And you can discover this for yourself, if you pay close attention. Notice how many times the mind pictures some unpleasant, devastating event that doesn't actually occur, and is unlikely ever to happen, even in the future.

    No, you can't always trust your mind -- or at least the first ideas it dishes up. They need to be reflected upon, weighed, mulled over, reasoned about, and evaluated. If people don't do this, they're bound to be constant victims of whatever images first pop into mind -- and continually suffer unpleasant, painful consequences as a result.

    A. Positive Appeals

    The error of the positive, seductive mental appeals is not too difficult to spot, if one takes the time to examine them closely. Mental images of how marvelous and wonderful it's going to be when, "I get some more cocaine, or get drunk, or have those dice in my hands", leave out entirely the unpleasant aspects, and negative after-effects of the addictive activity.

    The mind lies by omission, because it fails to include highly significant aspects of total reality -- the disagreeable aspects of the addictive activity itself, and its cost, in terms of negative after-effects. It ignores the discomfort of hang-overs, the pain of social disapproval, the smell of cigarette butts and clothing with burned holes, the pang of loss when the dice don't behave properly, the risk of getting AIDS from a dirty needle, the humiliation of losing a job, or the feelings of inadequacy and fear of loss that go with a compulsive addiction to another person.

    In all these cases what keeps the addiction going is basically an unwillingness to face, and accept the fact, or possibility, of physical and emotional pain (discomfort, distress, defeat, failure, inadequacy, etc.). People often don't want to look at anything they regard as "negative". They're afraid they'll get too upset. Or they're under the spell of the magical belief that just thinking about something will cause it to happen.

    Sometimes pausing to survey the total reality of a situation can be enough to put a stop to an addictive activity, or at least limit it to more rational proportions. There are people who can enjoy a glass or two of wine, smoke a cigarette occasionally, go shopping, and now and then have sex, without these activities becoming addictions. Studies have shown that there are even people who occassionally indulge in cocaine, without it becoming a habit. For such people, the fascination, or siren-like, seductive appeal of these activities is not mentally blown out of proportion.

    B. Negative Ideas and "Threats"

    The other side of the mental coin, the negative ideas and images about how terrible it is, or would be, to have to go without the addictive substance, activity, or person can be very powerful persuaders in getting a person to light up, drink up, or shoot up. Below are described some of the thoughts that tip the mental scales in favor of indulging in an addiction, even after the individual has decided that he, or she wants to be free of it.

    These are all ideas that real people have actually heard the mind say to them -- at moments of choice, when a conflict occurs over whether to engage in an addictive activity or not. They are samples from a collection of such ideas that I've made over the years in my work with patients, friends, relatives, and myself.

    (1) A smoker on a camping trip may hear the anxious thought, "What if I got stranded in the wilderness without any cigarettes?" This idea is likely to arouse a feeling of panic, and cause him to reach for his pack of weeds, and light up.

    (2) A person who tries to resist the temptation to partake of some forbidden substance may hear the mind say something like, "Think of the fun all those other lucky people out there are having, the ones who are smoking (drinking, shooting up, having sex, etc.)". This can produce feelings of deprivation and self-pity, or even resentment over the idea of being cheated out of something wonderful! Envy about other people's presumably preferable condition, or imagined good fortune, can be a powerful instigator of maladaptive behavior.

    (3) Noticing an increase in energy level, a person who is trying to give up smoking may interpret this as tension, or nerves, and hear something like, "What if you can't stand the strain, and go crazy?" Or, "Maybe not smoking will make you crabby, and you'll end up alienating, and losing all your friends!"

    With some justification it could be said that people smoke, not so much for the sheer pleasure of it, but because of a fear connected with NOT smoking -- the distressing feelings they think this might cause, or the unfortunate practical results they imagine could occur. In fact, ALL addictions are fundamentally based on fear -- the fear of what life would be like without the addiction!

    (4) The same kind of thing can happen with alcohol. Most people loosen up with a drink or two, and not only become more pleasant and relaxed themselves, but find other people to be a lot more interesting than they ordinarily seem to be. This can cause a person, during a party, to sense the idea, "Better have another drink. What if you get so sober that you lose your out-goingness and charm, and become boring to all these wonderful people. Or, perhaps even worse, they start to lose the exciting glamour being projected onto them, and become just ordinary mortals again!"

    (5) Any established habit will tend to reassert itself -- until a new pattern of reaction has been fully developed. This means that a person who has been successfully avoiding the enticements of an addictive substance or activity will still experience for a while those reoccurring spasms of longing, and blips of feeling "deprived" that seem so painful. One woman I know referred to these spasms of longing as "waves of despair".

    When an individual who is struggling to regain control over some substance or activity, experiences one of these spasms of despair, they may also hear the thought, "See, it's not doing any good to try to give up smoking (drinking, whatever). You're hooked, sick, afflicted with a genetic disease -- so you might just as well give up and go back to shooting up (gambling, whatever)!" Calling something a disease greatly increases the chances of creating a self-fulfilling-prophecy.

    (6) A person who, for a time, has not been thinking about a particular addictive substance or activity at all, and has even been having an enjoyable time reading a book, watching TV, or talking with friends, can suddenly, when hit with a momentary spasm of desire and despair, hear the thought, "See, you never have any real fun any more. Without cigarettes (booze, crack, whatever) life's a bore!" This is clearly an outright, total lie the mind is telling. But unless the person spots it for what it is, he, or she is very likely to grab for a smoke, a bottle, or the needle -- in a fruitless impulse to put an end to the feeling of emptiness, and the "tragic lack" the mind says is happening.

    (7) When picturing some situation or event in the future which the individual would ordinarily find interesting, fascinating, or exciting, the mind may say something like, "How sad, and awful -- since without smoking (drinking, eating a pound of chocolates, snorting cocaine) life won't really be any fun at all!"

    The fact is that, whether the anticipated event or activity will be fun or not depends entirely on the mind, and what it says about the situation at the time it's a happening -- not on the presence or absence of the addictive factor itself.

    (8) Sometimes one addiction is fortified by the fear that another, even worse one will take its place. A woman may be afraid to give up smoking cigarettes because of a fear that she'll become addicted to food, and get fat.

    The Solution

    The solution to overcoming an addiction is simple -- but difficult. It requires close attention, and in the beginning more or less constant effort, and continual practice -- practice in observing the mind in action, and evaluating what it says -- by comparing its statements to reality and rational logic. There's a need to understand, and directly experience, not just intellectually know about, the following basic truths:

    (1) The mind LIES (as well as telling truth some of the time). It's important to catch the mind in one of these all-too-frequent lies, over- generalizations, and gross exaggerations. When a person notices this a few times, and really experiences it, he or she will never again be quite so gullible as to believe whatever the mind happens to be dishing up at the moment. The discovery needs to be made that YOU DON'T HAVE TO BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOUR MINDS SAYS! [*]

    (2) Perhaps the most important observation of all is that the spasms of anxiety or despair, described above, actually never last longer than 7 to 10 seconds -- a very SHORT TIME indeed! This is tremendously significant, because it means that if an individual can only hang on for a bit, the feeling will simply fade away -- as the mind inevitably and naturally moves along to something else.

    It's true that the feeling may, and probably will come back, when the thoughts that arouse it occur once again. But that time, too, it will be for only a short while -- NOT forever -- as it will seem to be while the thought is happening.

    A woman who swore that she couldn't "stand it", and would "go crazy" if she couldn't have a cigarette during a group therapy session, reported that after hanging on for a few seconds, during one of her spasms of longing and deprivation, she suddenly experienced the wish for a cheese sandwich -- she was hungry!

    (3) When struggling to gain control, another crucial observation that needs to be made, to counteract the tendencies of the mind to lie about matters involving an addiction, is the fact that the INTERVALS BETWEEN the spasms of desire and despair for the addictive substance or activity become longer and longer. The periods of freedom between the blips of desire continue to grow longer and longer. A realization of this fact helps to refute the false idea that, "See, it's not doing any good. You might just as well go back to smoking (gorging on chocolates, drinking, gambling, whatever)".

    It's crucially important to register clearly the fact that the effort to become more conscious IS doing some good, as the intervals between spasms of discomfort become longer. These addiction-free intervals also allow for OTHER activities and interests in life to come to a person's attention, and to be developed.

    (4) The longer the time which a person mentally pictures the struggle with an addiction having to last, the more depressing and hopeless the prospect seems. AA recommends the concept of "one day at a time" -- presumably to avoid the feeling of discouragement and despair that can so easily be aroused by the depressing idea of "Never, never, never again will I ever be able to have a drink (eat chocolates, shoot craps, whatever)".

    The method presented here goes even further, and recommends that a person narrow the focus of attention, and deal only with each single, individual instance of the longing-despair spasm as it arises -- through observing and evaluating the thoughts involved. By thus limiting the range of vision, the seeming gruesome magnitude of the battle is greatly reduced. Coping with a single thought-feeling event is a lot less forbidding than the idea of having to deal even with one whole long day! We might say this method deals with 5-minutes at a time!

    And it allows for the possibility that the person may sometimes decide, depending on circumstances, and his, or her powers of discrimination and choice, to say "Yes" to the temptation to indulge in some previously totally forbidden fruit.

    Learning how the mind operates, and understanding the processes involved, provides a sure-fire method for overcoming an emotional dependence on a potentially destructive substance, activity, group, or person. And it proves that an addiction is not a disease, but a habit of thought and feeling -- and is therefore capable of being radically changed, through the simple processes of observation and learning.

         is that, whether the anticipated event or activity will be fun or not depends




[*] COMMENT.

I'm not sure what Dr Wesley means with "Mind". Sometimes it sounds like he actually speaks of Thoughts, like here. The question of Mind is a bit tricky. It's known as something that cannot grasp itself, so how could we be able to know wheter it lies or not? The Mind can however produce all kinds of Thoughts, and even if they are more or less reliable they can at least be reflected upon. I agree however, that we should not believe in all our thoughts - which we do more than happily. And this is, I think, the most addictive habit we have.

It would be of course easier if the Mind wouldn't produce all this garbage, but that's a question for Mind-Training I suppose.

Anyway dr Wesley's article has many other very good points to reflect upon. Enjoy!



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